Nuclear Weapons:

NNSA Needs to Improve Guidance on Weapon Limitations and Planning for Its Stockpile Surveillance Program

GAO-12-188: Published: Feb 8, 2012. Publicly Released: Feb 8, 2012.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Eugene E. Aloise
(202) 512-3000
aloisee@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

For the 52 NNSA identified limitations for all weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, 86 percent fall into six types: detonation safety under abnormal conditions, weapon reliability, weapon delivery, more frequent replacement of limited life components, nuclear yield, and worker safety. Some DOD officials expressed concern over the impact that certain weapon limitations have on weapon operation, maintenance, and war planning. According to DOD officials, current DOD mitigation actions, as well as the successful completion of ongoing and planned NNSA efforts, should address most limitations for which the officials raised concerns. DOD officials stated that the current stockpile allows sufficient flexibility to mitigate limitations. However, they told GAO that there may be less flexibility in the future as the stockpile continues to age and decreases in size. For each weapon system, NNSA provides DOD with guidance containing additional information on nuclear weapon limitations. However, GAO found that this guidance does not cover all limitations and some DOD officials said that it may not provide them with relevant information for some limitations. Specifically, the guidance addresses approximately 60 percent of all limitations but does not include limitations based on certain weapon components. In addition, one senior DOD official stated that the guidance did not help clarify the potential impact that a particular limitation may have on weapon operation and maintenance. The applicable military service is now conducting its own analysis of this limitation’s potential impact. Furthermore, the national laboratories identified four existing weapon limitations (8 percent of all limitations) that are no longer valid because, among other reasons, corrective action to address the limitations is complete. In addition, it is uncertain if an ongoing DOD and NNSA review of nuclear weapon military requirements will be used to eliminate limitations based on potentially outdated military requirements.

NNSA has begun to implement some recommendations from the agency’s draft October 2010 management review of the nuclear stockpile surveillance program but has not developed a corrective action plan to guide its multiple actions. For example, NNSA (1) created and staffed the position of Senior Technical Advisor for Surveillance in response to the review’s recommendation to establish strong NNSA leadership and (2) established a formal process for setting surveillance testing requirements. National laboratory and DOD officials GAO interviewed generally viewed NNSA’s actions as positive steps to improve the program. However, NNSA has not developed a corrective action plan, as called for by Office of Management and Budget Circular No. A-123. According to this circular on management controls, federal managers are to develop a corrective action plan to address program operations weaknesses identified through management reviews, among other things. Such plans are to include specific dates, assigned responsibilities, and metrics to measure progress and hold management accountable. According to a senior level NNSA official, the agency did not implement many of the recommendations from three prior surveillance program management reviews primarily because there was no specific approach for implementation. Without a corrective action plan, it is unclear how NNSA will (1) ensure that the draft October 2010 management review’s recommendations are fully implemented and (2) demonstrate to key stakeholders, such as Congress and DOD, that NNSA is committed to improving the surveillance program.

Why GAO Did This Study

Most weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile were produced over 20 years ago and are being sustained beyond original design lifetimes. It is critical to ensure that these weapons are safe, secure, and reliable to perform as the nation’s nuclear deterrent. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency within the Department of Energy, is responsible for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. NNSA identifies nuclear weapon limitations—areas where military requirements may not be met—and conducts nonnuclear tests to evaluate the condition and reliability of weapons through its nuclear stockpile surveillance program. GAO was asked to determine the (1) number and types of such limitations and any concerns raised by Department of Defense (DOD) officials, and (2) actions NNSA has taken to implement its prior recommendations for the nuclear stockpile surveillance program. GAO reviewed agency documents, analyzed limitations, and interviewed key NNSA and DOD officials.

What GAO Recommends

Among other things, GAO recommends that NNSA, in appropriate collaboration with DOD, expand guidance on weapon limitations to include all limitations, revise this guidance to clearly describe the limitations’ potential impacts, and develop a corrective action plan for implementing surveillance program recommendations. NNSA generally agreed with GAO’s recommendations and outlined planned actions to address them. DOD agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

For more information, contact Gene Aloise at (202) 512-3841 or aloisee@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We consider this recommendation closed, implemented. According to DoD's Office of Nuclear Matters, the Office is engaged in an effort to substantially re-write and update DOD Instruction 5030.55, DoD Procedures for Joint DoD-DOE Nuclear Weapons Life-Cycle Activities. The revised DOD Instruction 5030.55 is still in draft form but should be complete in 2017 after the draft goes through both DOD-wide comment and final legal review. Nuclear Matters reported that, in response to the recommendations contained in GAO-12-188, the Instruction contains a specific requirement that will require each nuclear weapon system's Project Office Group (POG) to provide an annual report to the Nuclear Weapons Council to include: (1) stating if the weapon system's MAR contains a new limitation and (2) the operational impact, if any, of the new limitation. According to DoD Officials, this annual report will not have to discuss previously identified MAR limitations because those operational impacts are already known and being mitigated by the Air Force and Navy. These annual reports will cover all weapon systems that are anywhere in the Phase 1-7 lifecycle.

    Recommendation: To improve the processes used to test and report on the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile and to improve the clarity of information NNSA provides to DOD about nuclear weapon limitations, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, should expand the guidance provided by NNSA to DOD so that it includes each existing limitation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To date, according to DoD officials, no limitations have been eliminated due to requirements review. However, each time DOE provides the DOD with a Major Assembly Release, such as the conclusion of a refurbishment, the relevant joint DOE-DoD Program Officers Groups (POG)are required to conducted a "soup-to-nuts" requirements review. Currently, most weapons in the U.S stockpile are undergoing refurbishment or have such refurbishments planned, and as such, will undergo requirements reviews. This, coupled with new limitations requirements being developed by DoD, will sufficiently address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the processes used to test and report on the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, and to improve the reliability and relevance of information associated with limitations, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, should determine if the findings of the joint DOD and NNSA military requirements review can be used to eliminate certain limitations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To date, according to DoD officials, no limitations have been eliminated due to requirements review. However, each time DOE provides the DOD with a Major Assembly Release, such as the conclusion of a refurbishment, the relevant joint DOE-DoD Program Officers Groups (POG)are required to conducted a "soup-to-nuts" requirements review. Currently, most weapons in the U.S stockpile are undergoing refurbishment or have such refurbishments planned, and as such, will undergo requirements reviews. This, coupled with new limitations requirements being developed by DoD, will sufficiently address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the processes used to test and report on the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, and to improve the reliability and relevance of information associated with limitations, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, should determine if the findings of the joint DOD and NNSA military requirements review can be used to eliminate certain limitations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NNSA developed a corrective action plan (CAP) as we recommended. This CAP contained 3 milestones. In October 2012, NNSA reported it had completed actions for closing milestones 1 and 2. This included transitioning to a new surveillance governance model and establishing the role of the Senior technical Advisor for Surveillance. Our September 2016 report on Enhanced Surveillance (ES) (GAO-16-549) confirmed these actions complete. However, our report showed that NNSA's planned actions for the integration of Surveillance and Enhanced Surveillance, while having taken place, have largely been overtaken by events such as a more ambitious life extension program for weapons and a change in the focus of ES from a campaign to an ongoing program of activities. We recommended in our September 2016 report that NNSA develop a new ES plan that better reflects the direction of the weapons program. NNSA agreed with this recommendations and we will monitor their implementation of this new plan once complete

    Recommendation: To improve the processes used to test and report on the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, and to increase confidence in NNSA's ability to fully address all findings and recommendations from its draft surveillance management review, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should prepare and complete a comprehensive corrective action plan in accordance with OMB Circular No. A-123. This plan should identify the detailed actions that agency personnel must take to fully implement the recommendations in the review and include specific dates, assigned responsibilities, and metrics to measure progress of this implementation. This corrective action plan should also address how to better integrate Core and Enhanced Surveillance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NNSA developed a corrective action plan (CAP) as we recommended. This CAP contained 3 milestones. In October 2012, NNSA reported it had completed actions for closing milestones 1 and 2. This included transitioning to a new surveillance governance model and establishing the role of the Senior technical Advisor for Surveillance. Our September 2016 report on Enhanced Surveillance (ES) (GAO-16-549) confirmed these actions complete. However, our report showed that NNSA's planned actions for the integration of Surveillance and Enhanced Surveillance, while having taken place, have largely be overtaken by events such as a more ambitious life extension program for weapons and a change in the focus of ES from a campaign to an ongoing program of activities. We recommended in our September 2016 report that NNSA develop a new ES plan that better reflects the direction of the weapons program. NNSA agreed with this recommendations and we will monitor their implementation of this new plan once complete.

    Recommendation: To improve the processes used to test and report on the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile and to increase confidence in NNSA's ability to fully address all findings and recommendations from its draft surveillance management review, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should prepare and complete a comprehensive corrective action plan in accordance with OMB Circular No. A-123. This plan should identify the detailed actions that agency personnel must take to fully implement the recommendations in the review and include specific dates, assigned responsibilities, and metrics to measure progress of this implementation. This corrective action plan should also address how to better integrate Core and Enhanced Surveillance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Though DOE and DoD agreed with this recommendation, in recommendation follow-up, both agencies believed that existing processes (annual assessment, program officers groups, planned and underway refurbishments) met the intent of the recommendation. DoD declined to provide NNSA more war planning documentation which is classified at the highest levels than it already does through existing channels such as the STRATCOM Commanders letter in the Annual Assessment Process. Because both agencies have taken actions that have sufficiently increased the visibility of nuclear weapons limitations, we believe that we can consider this recommendation as closed, implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve the processes used to test and report on the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile and to improve the clarity of information NNSA provides to DOD about nuclear weapon limitations, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, should assess, and revise as appropriate, the guidance provided by NNSA to DOD to ensure it clearly describes the potential impacts that each limitation may have on nuclear weapon operations, maintenance, and war planning.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We consider this recommendation closed, implemented. According to DoD's Office of Nuclear Matters, the Office is engaged in an effort to substantially re-write and update DOD Instruction 5030.55, DoD Procedures for Joint DoD-DOE Nuclear Weapons Life-Cycle Activities. The revised DOD Instruction 5030.55 is still in draft form but should be complete in 2017 after the draft goes through both DOD-wide comment and final legal review. Nuclear Matters reported that, in response to the recommendations contained in GAO-12-188, the Instruction contains a specific requirement that will require each nuclear weapon system's Project Office Group (POG) to provide an annual report to the Nuclear Weapons Council to include: (1) stating if the weapon system's MAR contains a new limitation and (2) the operational impact, if any, of the new limitation. According to DoD Officials, this annual report will not have to discuss previously identified MAR limitations because those operational impacts are already known and being mitigated by the Air Force and Navy. These annual reports will cover all weapon systems that are anywhere in the Phase 1-7 lifecycle.

    Recommendation: To improve the processes used to test and report on the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, and to improve the clarity of information NNSA provides to DOD about nuclear weapon limitations, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, should expand the guidance provided by NNSA to DOD so that it includes each existing limitation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Though DOE and DoD agreed with this recommendation, in recommendation follow-up, both agencies believed that existing processes (annual assessment, program officers groups, planned and underway refurbishments) met the intent of the recommendation. DoD declined to provide NNSA more war planning documentation which is classified at the highest levels than it already does through existing channels such as the STRATCOM Commanders letter in the Annual Assessment Process. Because both agencies have taken actions that have sufficiently increased the visibility of nuclear weapons limitations, we believe that we can consider this recommendation as closed, implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve the processes used to test and report on the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile and to improve the clarity of information NNSA provides to DOD about nuclear weapon limitations, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, should assess, and revise as appropriate, the guidance provided by NNSA to DOD to ensure it clearly describes the potential impacts that each limitation may have on nuclear weapon operations, maintenance, and war planning.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 14, 2016

Sep 8, 2016

Aug 11, 2016

Aug 9, 2016

Aug 4, 2016

Jul 15, 2016

Jul 14, 2016

Jun 20, 2016

Mar 3, 2016

Looking for more? Browse all our products here